Behind the wave of wildly popular science and history social media feeds, such as @DoYouScience, @oldpicsarchive, and @ScienceAllDay, there is a rogue fact-checker calling out the fakes. Paulo Ordoveza tweets at @PicPedant, an account he uses to challenge mislabeled, fraudulent, and PhotoShopped images that go viral. He also nags these feeds to give credit to photographers and sources whose work they distribute. He is, in short, leveraging the speed and transparency of Twitter to bring a kind of journalistic culture of fact-checking to the public realm.
.@oldpicsarchive Wrong. That’s a still from the 1929 movie “The Wild Party.”— PicPedant (@PicPedant) July 17, 2015
As a tireless soldier in the fight to bring accountability to this rising realm of science and history information, @PicPedant has earned the attention of Poynter, Adweek, and the Daily Mirror. “The most frequent praise I receive is ‘you’re doing God’s work,’ especially from journalists, librarians, archivists, photographers, teachers, historians, and writers,” Ordoveza said by email while traveling through Europe.
No wonder @PicPedant inspires awe, given that the task Ordoveza has set for himself is unending and unpaid. But there’s an open question on whether his efforts are even effective. More than a year into the @PicPedant effort, and with ample use of Google Reverse Image Search and TinEye, Ordoveza has come to a bleak conclusion: “I’ve learned that social image verification is a futile and hopeless endeavor akin to banging one’s head against a brick wall, and each brick in said wall is printed with an obviously fake picture. Also, the fake picture bricks repeat at irregular intervals. And some of the bricks hate you.”
Especially frustrating is the fact that Ordoveza isn’t challenging well-meaning but careless lovers of science and history: Many of these viral feeds have a cynical turn. After gathering thousands or millions of followers, their makers capitalize on them by selling sponsored tweets, affiliate links, or even the accounts themselves. They are often minimally managed, with scraper bots cycling through “amazing” photos picked up from Reddit, Flickr, Imgur, and other sources. This practice keeps their follower base growing via thousands of retweets, even as the feeds may be increasingly manipulated by marketers. There is little incentive for them to change their behavior.
Contrast those feeds with genuine efforts to share awe-inspiring stories of science. CJR has profiled Elise Andrews and her “I fucking love science” social media feed as “journalism’s first self-made brand.” While Andrews is adept at using social media to reveal the pleasures of science, she’s also come under fire for not crediting the images she shares. Andrews didn’t initially respond to those charging her with exploiting their work, but over time, credit lines began appearing on IFLScience’s posts more frequently.
To date, @PicPedant has not appeared to inspire any viral feeds to change their sloppy practices. Instead, they tend to ignore him, or block him. There may be some quick bursts of apology or attribution from these accounts, but there’s rarely a consistent change. Ordoveza said he did manage to “scare one student into citing sources when photographers whose pictures he stole threatened to tell his advisor.” But otherwise, rather than upping their accountability, these science and history feeds “keep looping through the same tired queue of repeat Reddit reruns interspersed with dubious affiliate listicle links.”
Brendan Nyhan, who has contributed to CJR and written frequently about fact-checking, said that the question about how to stave off rampant online misinformation is a difficult one. “One option would be for Twitter to take steps like what Facebook has started to do to limit the spread of misinformation on the platform,” he said via email. Facebook has recently added a “satire” tag on fake articles and introduced a feature designed to alert users to likely hoaxes. It’s also made moves to show fewer clickbait headlines that are likely to lead to spam sites. But an obstacle to this, Nyhan added, is that as popular as these high-traffic science and history feeds are, they are likely not on a scale that will prompt Twitter to take action.
But Ordoveza keeps at it. And @PicPedant isn’t the only account trying to push back against the tide. Other accounts that are trying to make a dent in the circulation of online misinformation include @snopes, @fakeastropix, and Gizmodo’s @wellfactually. Ordoveza also credits Tom Phillips, the editorial director of Buzzfeed UK, for managing @istwitwrong, an account that is no longer active but that inspired @PicPedant to pick up the mantle.
Ordoveza said @PicPedant is a project he works on when he has down time, or is bored. It’s been relatively quiet while he’s been traveling the last couple of weeks, but typically, debunking is squeezed around his day job, which he describes as “top secret” and “tangential to the space program.” (Poynter noted that he is a developer and designer who has worked on government contracts.) His job involves a great deal of space imagery, which is one of @PicPedant’s favorite targets. Ordoveza is especially irked when something like the Atlas V rocket or the New Horizons Pluto probe is referred to as a “space shuttle.”
“Science, history, imagery, and the public domain are specific passions of mine, and having greedy marketers co-opt these fields into misinformation-based marketing endeavors is a sad, sad thing,” he said. When it comes to the impact he’d most like to have, he says this: “One day I hope the dude who runs @oldpicsarchive realizes: That isn’t economy class aboard a 747 in the 1960s, and then he disconsolately retires all his scraper bots from the internet for having misled so many thousands.”
Ordoveza does note it as a quiet triumph when accounts block him, because it indicates that they noticed what he’s doing, and because “my snide replies still show up in the tweet mentions.”
But for now, perhaps the most significant impact @PicPedant makes is in educating social media users about the dubious facticity of these feeds. He has nearly 19,000 followers—not bad for less than 16 months on the beat. While it’s hardly on par with, say, @HistoryinPics (2.53 million followers), it does demonstrate that there’s a loud minority of people willing to adopt a new kind of social media ethic, one where if you share something on social media, you’d better be ready to stand behind it. The caveats of “retweets aren’t endorsements” and “whoa, if true” aren’t sufficient loopholes.